are we there yet? or, writerly illusions

Karen the Lurker asked me an interesting question a few posts ago: How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

The discussion was specifically about writing sex scenes, but I’m going to try to answer it in a greater context. It’s one of those questions that people don’t discuss much and here it is: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.
You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding. Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed. Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this. Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start writing again? First you show it to a bigger group of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detai.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember what your writing teachers always said: if one person make a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

    It’s all a draft until you die.

5 Replies to “are we there yet? or, writerly illusions”

  1. “It’s all a draft until you die”. I am going to post this on the wall! This is very timely for me as I’m midway through my first workshop experience (10 of us in an 8 week session), and I’m going to sign up for another 8 weeks. I had my first chapter critiqued and getting 10 independent, detailed critiques back from other (aspiring) writers working on novels was fantastic. I actually have been laying all 10 out and comparing the notes, paragraph by paragraph. Beyond getting this outside feedback, probably the biggest benefit to being critiqued has been that it is building my confidence in my own instincts — when I thought a scene was pretty good and I got a lot of positive comments, when I loved the turn of a phrase, but suspected I needed to kill it, they told me, when I went on a little too long and I thought maybe it was too, they told me it could be tightened up. Other things that were pointed out, I didn’t see and that helps a lot too. I’m lucky — this is truly a great group who are genuinely helpful — no toxic personalities. My only suspicion sometimes is that maybe people could be tougher and they are treading more lightly than they should. Thanks for the great post and I am tacking your quote up on my office wall!

  2. Rosina – Henry James also edited some of his major works and had them re-published (a lot of his very serious novels in fact.) The main one that pops into my head is “Portrait of a Lady” – now we’re talking fine tuning here – b/c I have carefully read the original and the later version – such fine tuning (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way) that it is tough to know in some instances, what the effect of the revisions are. Obviously however James wanted to a)tighten some scenes and b) he put more emotion into the second version. So some authors have done this – it does make for a very interesting read to read both versions.


  3. Despite the fact I asked this question in regards to writing sex scenes, your answer is far more appropriate to my overall musings about writing. How do I know if this works? I just had this discussion with a writer friend over the weekend. Knowing if it works is so subjective, it’s hard to answer. What one person likes, another won’t. I suppose that’s why you send out manuscripts to hundreds of people, hoping one of them will click with it. And as you said in the post, it’s also why you have trusted beta readers.

    Jim McDonald says that when you find yourself taking out a word in the morning and putting it back in that afternoon, it’s time to let it go. Send that puppy out. But he also acknowledges that you’ll always see something in the finished book you wish you had done differently.

    So…”It’s all draft until you die” seems quite appropriate. I like that.

    Thanks, Rosina.

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